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Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of science... the thrill of discovery... and the agony of failed experiments... the human drama of scientific advancement... This is the Blue Streak Science Podcast!

Sep 6, 2018

The observation of a decaying Higgs’ Boson | Skull tunnels | Troubleshooting on the International Space Station | Rates of STD infections in the United States go way up |The Climate Lounge |Pub Quiz

Science News with Nevena Hristozova and Chris MacAlister

Physicists Observe the Higgs Boson’s Elusive Decay

We struggled for 50 years to detect it, and now we can’t wait to see it die! It’s the Higgs. The boson, not the Professor! Luckily, Professor Peter Higgs is still alive and well at the age of 89.

And I’m talking about the decay of the higgs boson - because only by knowing how a particle is born and how it dies one can truly understand it - I’m so poetic! But it’s true.

Now the two largest experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva ATLAS and CMS have found another manner via which the boson decays - into bottom-antibottom quarks. This most common decay pattern was surprisingly hard to detect, even if more than 50% of the time the higgs decays like this. Previous observations included its decay into two photons and an electron–antielectron pair, when counterintuitively this is predicted to happen just about 0,2% of the time.

But then again, I never claimed that theoretical and particle physics were in any way intuitive to me!

Nature, Science, Scientific American

Newfound skull tunnels

We did indeed, so let me return to our tale of brains, bones and blood.

Humankind has been examining all aspects of our bodies, both inside and out, for as long as we have had them, which makes it even more remarkable that we are still finding new features in it. The most recent being a network of tiny tunnels within the cranium.

These tunnels are like a window to the bone marrow which is immensely important for a variety of reasons but notably, it is where our blood is made. Not only our red-blood cells but also the white blood cells that form the backbone of our immune system (no pun intended).

It used to be believed that first response white blood cells (neutrophils to be precise) travelled from all areas of the body to wherever they happen to be needed. Note the “used to be” guess what’s coming next!

By providing the cranial marrow with fluorescent dye the team from Harvard were able to measure the proportion of these cells that were appearing in the brains of stroke sufferers, where the immune system is having a field day. What they found was that most of the cells, by far, had originated in the cranium rather than elsewhere in the body.

So the question was now; how do the neutrophils get from the marrow to create this sprinkler system of a immune response? This is what inspired the search that eventually discovered these tunnels.

A key part of the body’s standard immune response is inflammation. Whilst it does a great job, there can be times where it causes more problems than it solves and the brain tends to be one of these cases. Additional pieces of information like this about how the immune system works within our brains could eventually lead to advancements in the treatment of conditions such as Alzheimer's or multiple sclerosis.

Science News, The Scientist

Air Leak on the ISS

Oh oh! We’re in trouble! This is how the international space station would have sounded like few days ago if there was enough atmosphere up there to sound like anything at all.

A small dip in cabin pressure was noticed by ground control on Wednesday 29 august. Then the astronauts started searching for the hole. Turned out, the leak was via a 2-millimeter-wide hole in one of the two Russian Soyuz spacecraft that's currently docked to the orbiting lab.

As of today, the damage is repaired and no risk threatens the integrity of the ISS or the life of the astronauts.

Russian space officials have said that the puncture was caused by a micrometeoroid, but NASA has not confirmed this. Was it may be a piece of space debris? Or may be normal wear and tear of the materials? Or an alien laser weapon?

What I was most curious is HOW you find a 2mm hole in a 108.5 meters by 72.8 meters pace ship covered with insulation, thousands of pipes, tubes, instruments etc…. I tried to find out, JD, but it didn’t say… I place my bet on releasing some compressed air with a colorant in it and following where does it escape from. If NASA or the ISS are listening - call us - we want to know!

Scientific American,

S.T.D. Diagnoses Reach Record 2.3 Million New Cases in U.S.

Well, JD; what have I got for you. Chlamydia, how does that suit you? No? Not for you? Okay, what about syphilis? Gonorrhea? Take your pick, I’ve got them all.

I mean, not me personally; but my story has, because this is the news that sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise in the United States.

Not only are they on the rise, they have just hit a diagnosis record with 2.3 million new cases in 2017. In the previous 4 years syphilis cases have increased by 76%. So what the hell is going on?

It’s often tricky to make a direct link between cause and effect and in science we must always remember that correlation does not equal causation, but that said. Here are some fun correlations:

  1. Screening and diagnosis is improving. If you are checking more people in more effective ways then you are bound to discover more cases. And this then inflates because as you diagnose new and expecting mothers you then go on to check their new babies who are getting diagnosed as well.
  2. Online dating is increasing and it is successful. So when more swipey-swipey leads to more bouncy-bouncy then you get more itchy-itchy.
  3. Condom use is decreasing. Can you believe that in this day and age we are actually going backwards in this? This could in part be down to men assuming that women are taking control of contraception but it could also be linked to correlation number 4...
  4. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s STD budget has been slashed by 40% since 2003. Now we give the Trump administration a fair bit of stick on this show, and rightly so, but multiple administrations bare some responsibility for this one. Trump may claim to be different from his predecessors but even he has a further 17% cut lined up for next year.

Some may argue that people don’t need telling about how STDs spread so no budget is needed, but not everyone realises that you can spread one far and wide before you even present any symptoms. That’s exactly why these diseases spread so well.

They say that the world needs more love and I stand by that sentiment, but for pitties sake people; be careful when you go out to do your bit.

The Atlantic, New York Times

The Climate Lounge

Welcome! Let’s start today’s Climate Lounge with a poetry reading. More like a poetry line reading from one of the poems that the US makes its high students read. John Donne, Meditation 17. No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent. But plenty of places are what’s called Urban Heat Islands. (geez what a forced opening line. I know the poem is about something deeper.. I get it, not my best, but it’s hot where I am and that’s the best I’ve got).

An urban heat island is a metropolitan area that becomes much hotter than its surrounding areas due to built up human infrastructure. Things like concrete and asphalt can absorb radiation during the day and re-radiate it not only throughout the day but also at night leading to drastically warmer daytime and nighttime temperatures in cities compared to surrounding areas. Now if you don’t want to take my word for it. Test this out the next time it’s hot outside.Stand on an asphalt pavement and then walk over to a grassy shaded area and tell the difference in heat. There’s a difference. Or just take my word for it and don’t bother making yourself feel uncomfortably hot and get all sweaty and gross and yuck.

In the summer, this can mean hot days that tip to extremely and dangerously hot days affecting the elderly, sick and young. In fact excessive heat is seen as the greatest weather-related cause of death in the United States.

Now satellites have been able to map this on a large scale but scientists with NOAA, Portland State and the Science Museum of virginia has started doing on the ground heat island studies to map just how different conditions can be from neighborhood to neighborhood. This level of detail is missed out on satellites and can have profound effects on how cities deal with heat in the future as temperatures continue to warm due to human caused climate change. Washington DC for instance averages 5 days a year over 95. That could jump to 20 days by 2030, 40 days by 2050 and 80 days by 2100.

Recently, these scientists along with citizen scientists and volunteers in Washington DC and Baltimore maryland, headed out with temperature sensors mounted to their car windows to monitor conditions through different transects through each city at three times during the day, morning 6am, peak heating during the mid afternoon 3pm and evening 7pm. Soon enough scientists will be able to look through the data and see exactly which areas are hottest due to the urban heat island.

But we don’t have to wait to see this sort of impact. A similar study led by the same scientists, Jeremy Hoffman, and Dr. Vivek Shandas was completed last year for Richmond,VA. They found a 16 degree difference 87 to 103 at the hottest part of the day in the same city! And more importantly, they were able to show that the neighborhoods that tend to get smacked hardest by the urban heat island are poorer neighborhoods and areas where ambulances are already called more often to deal with heat related problems.

Now we can fix this. Cities can use more reflective materials when building, remove pavement for grass, plant trees, add living roofs but it’s an effort that has to be taken at a city-county-state and federal level to deal with. And this sort of study is just the first step in helping cities find out just exactly where things are the worst and where actions need to be taken immediately to help community members. Because often times the folks hardest hit, are often already the most vulnerable people in our communities.

So let me end with the final lines from that poem I started off with as I think it’s a great reminder in our climate changed worlds.

Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Our Climate bell is ringing.


Pub Quiz

  1. According to a Swiss study published last week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology children born through in vitro fertilization may have higher risk of what?
  2. Researchers reporting in the journal Science on 30 August announced that using CRISPR/Cas9 techniques in a dog model have fixed a genetic mutation that causes what disease?
  3. There is a species of corn native to Oaxaca, Mexico that stand over 5 meters tall. That’s about twice the height of typical corn you see being cultivated. And sticking out from the stalks are aerial roots, which look like red fingers. And they’re covered in gooey slime. Why are scientists excited about this corn?
  4. This past Sunday a 200 year old science and antiquities museum was gutted by a huge fire in what country?
  5. While a subway was being excavated in Melbourne, Australia workers discovered a gruesome cache of over 1,000 human teeth in the sediment. How did those teeth get there?

And today’s winner is: Nevena!

How did YOU do?

In Closing

That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.

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This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.

Our hosts today were Nevena Hristozova, Chris MacAlister, and Tom Di Liberto.

I’m JD Goodwin.  

Thank you for joining us.

And remember...follow the science!